War and Peace | Study Guide

Leo Tolstoy

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War and Peace | Symbols


Most of the symbols that Leo Tolstoy uses are expressed in his epic similes, a signature literary device in the novel. Epic similes are extended metaphors and may run for several lines, expanding the comparison of one thing in the light of another, but an epic simile uses "as" or "like" in the comparison.

Abandoned Beehive

The empty city of Moscow that the French find is compared to an abandoned beehive (Vol. 3, Part 3, Chapter 20). Just as there is "no life in a queenless beehive," although it may seem alive at first glance, so Moscow becomes lifeless. This long and beautifully wrought simile symbolizes how Moscow has been reduced to a mere husk, a shadow of itself left behind for the conquerors who thought to seize the prized jewel of the East. By refusing to allow the French to function with any kind of normalcy in Moscow, the Russians have poisoned the French victory.


The actions of the military are compared to a clock mechanism (Vol. 1, Part 3, Chapter 11) to show how once the movement of the war begins—innumerable movements that cannot be taken back once they are set in motion—the end result, the hour of war, is inevitable. The end result of the movements of the parts are incomprehensible to the parts. Nonetheless the impersonal movements will result in the very personal deaths of hundreds of thousands. Austerlitz was "a slow movement of the world-historical hand on the clockface of human history," says Tolstoy, to emphasize the mechanical aspect of war and to symbolize his idea that people's roles in historical movements are inspired by necessity, not free will.

Oak Tree

The oak tree that Prince Andrei happens to notice in the birch woods as he is driving in his carriage is meant to symbolize himself. When he first sees the old, gigantic tree (Vol. 2, Part 3, Chapter 1), it appears to him as unsymmetrical, "angry, scornful, and ugly, amidst the smiling birches." The tree was different from its peers, the birches, and did not wish to submit to the spring, he thought. But on his way back from the Rostovs, after he has seen and heard Natasha, the tree suddenly has been transformed, "spreading out a canopy of juicy, dark greenery, basked, barely swaying, in the rays of the evening sun." Andrei feels renewed and ready to face life, and his personification of the tree reflects this.

Comet of 1812

The Comet of 1812 was a historical event, visible on Earth for about 260 days, beginning in 1811. While some saw it as an omen marking the end of the world, for Pierre it symbolizes a new life for him that starts when he admits to himself that he loves Natasha. The description of the comet, as Pierre looks up with tears in his eyes, occurs after he tells Natasha "If I were not I ... I would ... ask for your hand and your love."

Questions for Symbols

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